Friday, November 19, 2021

The “disposable” workforce.

 Last month a House subcommittee report found that workers at the leading US meatpacking plants experienced cases and deaths that were up to three times previous estimates The investigation, opened in February by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, said not only had JBS USA, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, but they had also “shown a callous disregard for workers’ health”. In September the committee’s chair, Jim Clyburn, added Cargill and National Beef Packing Company (National Beef) to its investigation.

For nearly a month, JBS did not do enough to protect its employees, many of them low paid refugees or migrants.

“You just have to look at the conditions in plants to understand the way that folks were crowded without masks was an epicenter of transmission,” said Melissa Perry, chair of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University.

Worker representatives recalled that when some people brought masks from home, human resources ordered them removed.

 “JBS was concerned that people were going to get scared or excited about mask use,” said Celestino Rivera, the United Food and Commercial Workers union representative.  “We felt there were instances where supervisors, because they were short-handed, were trying to convince individuals to continue working,” Rivera said.

There was immense pressure felt by employees to keep working as staffing shortages raised the specter of a temporary shutdown. The company even resorted to cash and steak incentives to keep workers on the line. 

Considering the blood-drenched environment of a slaughterhouse it should come as little surprise that the industry relies heavily upon, and the government is complicit in providing, foreign-born workers to fill jobs that most American citizens won’t do.

 Though traumatic injuries from ultrasharp knives and bone-crushing machines are common, the gradual wear and tear of the job can also break a body. Existing protections simply do not account for the physical toll of disassembling thousands of animals into their saleable parts for a living. Ultimately it took the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic to fully expose the vulnerability of the nation’s meat processing workers.

From the start of the pandemic until September nearly 60,000 slaughterhouse workers at the major firms have contracted the coronavirus, and at least 298 of them have died. An exact accounting of the virus’s toll may never be known, in part, because of what has been described as weak oversight and a hands-off approach to workplace inspections that were features of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement under the Trump.

Debbie Berkowitz, a former Osha chief of staff, now a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University said. “The meat industry has not been held accountable for their failure to adequately protect workers,” Berkowitz added, “a true travesty.”

 “The pandemic opened a window to the working conditions inside these plants,” said Celeste Monfronton, workplace safety expert, “but the attention has not really extended to the underlying causes.” Large multinational companies dominate the $227bn market and before the pandemic about eight workers died annually, while coronavirus has claimed at least 30 times that number.

Industry critics say foreign workers are particularly susceptible to exploitation, and the US refugee resettlement system funnels refugees to slaughterhouse jobs. Nearly 40% of the US meat industry workforce is foreign-born and in Texas the number is closer to 56%.

“Our government has partnered with the meat industry to bring refugees so that they have a workforce that is vulnerable and scared,” Berkowitz said. “And they get away with it because the industry is hidden from public view.” 

Advocates say the Biden administration has shown no indication that it will take on the social conditions and policy environments that endanger the lives of workers, such as requiring that the industry engage in health and safety research. Critics say the business model of meat processors is designed to sustain the health of the industry, not its employees. Injured and sick workers are looked after by a pool of company-approved doctors who, critics say, send them back to work so that production won’t suffer, and the company can avoid reporting lost workdays to Osha. Rather than strengthen worker protections, Texas lawmakers made it even harder to challenge negligent employers when it passed Senate Bill 6 this June. The law shields businesses from lawsuits that ostensibly acted in good faith during the pandemic. Plaintiffs must gather evidence, which in some cases, such as Covid exposure, is practically impossible

The disposable US workforce: life as an ‘essential’ meatpacking plant worker | Meat industry | The Guardian

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